“Celebrity” is often synonymous with excess, ego and undue attention. Thank goodness then for Emanuel Ax, whose appearance at the Celebrity Series of Boston was a reminder that fame and talent, not to mention modesty, don’t have to be mutually exclusive. Ax was lucid, powerful, and above all, moving; in others words all the things that should be celebrated in an artist.
A short, slightly stocky older gentleman with grey hair in simple grey suit, Ax looks more likely to offer tea or explain insurance premiums than to unleash the pianism that has made him an internationally acclaimed artist and welcome guest with the world’s leading orchestras. He entered the Jordan Hall stage on Friday May 11th with a humility and gratitude almost bordering on awe that so many people came out just to hear him. It’s no surprise that Ax was playing to a sold-out Jordan Hall, though judging from the applause, it sounded like it had been far longer than two years since Ax’s last appearance in the Celebrity Series’s star-studded roster.
The real surprise was opening with Copland’s Piano Variations from 1930. Leonard Bernstein joked that Copland’s set of 20 contiguous variations could empty an entire room with just its four-note motif. Ax played this work as a menacing, absolutely addicting introduction. It’s easy for a pianist to hammer through this work, and perhaps clever but ultimately trite to reform it into an arching narrative. Ax approached each of Copland’s thundering, desiccated phrases as introspective blocks, stone ruins to some grand but disturbing ideas. Chilling upper-register chimes and subtle pedal fades only reinforced that gravity. Ax mouthing to himself over empathic phrasing and a rock-steady beat made it clear that for him, Copland’s work is far more than sophisticated modernism or challenging display.
That ability to “get inside a composer’s work,” spoken of so frequently as to become a cliché, allowed Ax to find continuity as well as individuality when seguing to Haydn’s Andante with Variations in F Minor (Hob. XVII/6). Chronologically and stylistically far from Copland’s work, Haydn’s 1793 rumination on the death of a friend (yes, some historians suggest Mozart) seemed like just another exploration of darkness in Ax’s hands. There wasn’t a touch of preciosity or “period” dryness. Ax treated Haydn’s delicate first theme with utter seriousness as well as grace. Lacy legato, a dreamy, nearly stunned atmosphere and reflective breadth for Haydn’s proto-bluesy bass lines also figured prominently. The pianist’s overtly frilly handling of Haydn’s more upbeat, major-key second theme did come across as disinterested, though by the second variation things seemed more organic. Perhaps Ax didn’t find Haydn’s attempts at self-consolation believable.
On the other hand, Ax seized upon Beethoven’s Variations and Fugue in E-Flat Major, “Eroica” Op. 35, composed in 1802, as an opportunity to explore several aspects of this work and its composer. Beethoven surpassed contemporary notions of a “theme with variations,” and Ax’s contrapuntal clarity and vibrant rhythm highlighted the energy, humor and fragility unfolding in its fifteen variations. The fugues and canons, played with tuneful glee by Ax, demonstrated what a diligent student of older composers the rebellious Beethoven in fact was, while harmonic deconstructions and melodic clarity show him to be far ahead of his time. Ax in turn demonstrated that a true “celebrity” knows just when to hold back as well as throw everything in. His attention to detail even during storm-tossed passages allowed for an even more visceral experience. Ax let the glowing, rhapsodic penultimate variation speak for itself, except for some immaculate, thoroughly personal trills.
Following intermission, the same restraint and sensitivity allowed the melancholy theme of Schumann’s Études en Forme de Variations, commonly known as the “Symphonic Etudes” Op. 13 room to grow. Schumann took his material from a theme written by a lover’s father. While Steven Ledbetter’s excellent program notes explain that it’s uncertain how much attention Schumann would have paid to the theme if not for his romantic inclinations, it did allow Schumann to push the boundaries of piano technique as well as symphonic effects.
Ax smoothly negotiated the harmonic shifts of the first variation as though turning a page while contrasting the bold colors of the second variation against the gauzy textures of the third. The inclusion of three etudes originally omitted by Schumann added lyrical asides to the work, with Ax moody, abstract, and at times milking a phrase into exquisite emotional blackmail. While he tastefully chose not to take the ninth variation’s “Presto Possibile” as literally as he could have, the powerful, uninhibited finale featured Ax pounding out a rocketing theme Schumann took from a then-popular opera. Several appreciative but by no means indulgent curtain calls and breezy encores of Chopin and Liszt just reinforced the fact that for a celebrity like Ax, it’s impossible to ever just show off.
Andrew J. Sammut also writes for Early Music America and All About Jazz, and blogs on a variety of music at clefpalette.wordpress.com. He also plays clarinet and lives in Cambridge.